JetBlue. Frontier. Southwest.
For many travelers, such names are synonymous with savings. It's reasonable to expect low-cost carriers to offer the lowest fares.
"Low cost" no longer always means "low fare," experts say. Major airlines, sometimes dubbed "legacy carriers" because they existed before industry deregulation in 1978, are shaving fares to meet or undercut the discounters whose networks threaten their territory and bottom line.
"The low-cost carriers are driving the legacy carriers into panic pricing," said Mike Boyd, an industry analyst and president of the Boyd Group/Aviation Systems Research Corp. in Evergreen, Colo.
As a result, you can often get an assigned seat, frequent-flier miles and other perks -- plus the best fare.
In a study last year, Boyd said his company found that major carriers such as Delta and US Airways charged less than Southwest about half the time on routes between Albany, N.Y., and Florida.
More recently, in Internet searches for fares from Los Angeles International Airport to popular summer destinations, I found United, Northwest and other majors undercut discounters by as much as $88 per round trip on three of nine routes for the dates I checked.
Loaded with debt and hungry for cash to offset their losses, many major airlines can ill afford to let a seat sit empty.
"Better to get $20 for the seat than no dollars," said Ron Kuhlmann, vice president of Unisys R2A, an airline consulting firm in Oakland, Calif.
Consumers also may win with legacy carriers because discounters often sell out their lowest fares early, Boyd said.
Emblematic of the surging power of low-cost carriers: Southwest recently slapped a $1 to $2 fare increase each way (depending on distance) onto most flights to cover the higher cost of fuel.
The majors, by contrast, have tried and failed repeatedly this year to raise fares across the board after one or the other refused to go along.
In my informal study, I used search engines at Orbitz.com and Sidestep.com to find the lowest nonstop fare between LAX and Boston, Chicago (O'Hare and Midway airports), Denver, Las Vegas, New York (JFK), Orlando, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. (Dulles).
I also checked Jetblue.com and Southwest.com, whose fares are not posted on Orbitz.
I did all the searches on the same morning for round trips departing LAX on July 30 and returning Aug. 7. It was not a perfect system. Airlines constantly adjust fares, and Sidestep and Orbitz sometimes listed different prices. Most fares included a $6 Orbitz service fee.
With those caveats, here's what I found (these fares may no longer be available).
Low-cost carriers posted the cheapest round-trip nonstops to Boston ($262, America West), Chicago ($236.70, Southwest to Midway; $282.20, Spirit to O'Hare), Philadelphia ($252.20, Frontier) and Washington ($244, America West.)
Legacy carriers were the least expensive to Denver ($176, Northwest, besting Frontier at $238.20), New York ($222, United/US Airways, besting America West at $310) and Orlando ($272, American, besting Delta's low-cost Song at $347). There was one tie, for Las Vegas, where American, Southwest, US Airways and United's low-cost Ted offered $96 nonstops.
Cheaper is not always better.
If you have piles of frequent-flier miles with a major carrier, for instance, paying $20 or $30 less to fly a rival discounter may not be cost-effective.
Estimates of what a frequent-flier mile is worth vary, but a popular figure is 2½ cents. At that rate, 4,924 miles earned on a cross-country round-trip could be worth about $123.
Low-cost airlines not always cheaper
With airline fares in flux, it pays to compare costs for each destination.
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